“We were stories that should never have met, or stories that only existed because we met. I still don’t know.” (108)
Interior Chinatown meets Big Fish in this gay, fantastical nearly-noir of 1930s Hollywood, and I can’t find the words. Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen (TorDotCom 2022) is grotesquely gorgeous and unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Luli Wei, years before she stole a name, sells years off her life for a movie ticket. She later sells decades off her life for just a chance at her star rising, and when she turns 18, she joins Wolfe studios and steals her sister’s name.
Luli has rules – no maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers. The kid Jacko had once only called “CK,” for Chinese Kid, is hellbent on rising to fame and glory under her own terms, no matter the costs. When she’s cast to play the siren to Harry Long’s captain, she knows she’s in her element. Luli Wei may well refuse to play a fainting flowern but she will devour an audience as a monster.
Magical realism frolics about the pages with shapeshifters, immortality, half-beast/half-humans, monsters (both real and imagined) and human sacrifices to the moving picture gods make unquestioned appearances. The words float on legend and lore and the sheer grit and determination of those, like Luli, who will do just about anything to see their star rise.
Luli’s sexuality is also a driving force of the novel. While seeking fame, she finds the heat of Emmaline’s flames. Emmaline is a leading lady, and many come to her fire to seek her attention and affections. Many come, but Luli succeeds. Theirs is a passionate love affair of light and dark, the darling and the monster, but it is not a love story that can survive in the elements. In a particularly wonderful scene, Luli finds herself at the home of a famous costar. She anticipates that she will be required to have sex with him, but he surprises her by showing that there are many “monsters” like her who are forced to hide in the shadows with a love that isn’t allowed to burn.
Siren Queen is brilliantly weird and thoroughly enjoyable.
Read this book.